Managing Growth in Malden & Somerville: A Tale of Two Cities

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The influx of new residents into Boston and its surrounding communities has put growing pressure on the area’s housing stock. Just recently the median home price in Massachusetts broke $400,000, and there aren’t enough units available to meet the demand among natives, let alone newcomers.

Boston’s satellite communities experience greater pressure than towns further out—and the cities that sit just on the periphery of Boston have chosen to address the housing crunch in different ways.

Malden and Somerville are two illustrative examples. The cities have some situational and physical similarities—both are relatively close to downtown Boston and have roughly the same number of transit stops. However, the two municipalities view future growth and long-term outcomes quite differently. By a number of accounts, Malden endeavors to limit population growth while improving the city in response to the concerns of current residents. Somerville, in contrast, has largely embraced population growth and eyed opportunities to expand development.

As housing stock persistently falls short of demand in Greater Boston, prices continue to climb, and these two communities are no exception. To date, Malden residents have seen median housing prices rise above $400,000, well above the $330,100 median value recorded in the 2010 census. Somerville is also on the rise, with a median that tops $600,000, compared to $469,000 in the 2010 census. This marks a seven-year increase of 23.78 percent for Malden and 36.33 percent for Somerville. To compare, Boston currently has a median home value of $465,206, which is 18.19 percent higher than in 2010. Massachusetts’ median home value of $410,000 is up 23.08 percent from $333,100 in 2010.

Housing price escalation is spurred by many factors, one of which is the growing number of young professionals flocking to Greater Boston. Accompanying this trend is an escalating need for improved transportation to the communities adjacent to Boston. Increased demand for transit presents a number of challenges; managing these pressures is a top priority.

Transit-oriented growth has long been a goal of policy makers. As gentrification and population growth extend beyond core Boston-area cities and towns, the experiences of Somerville and Malden are especially instructive. The contrasting attitudes and policy approaches these cities have taken to manage the dramatic changes are like a “tale of two cities,” offering valuable lessons for other communities.

Somerville’s approach to manage a growing population with evolving transit needs is a model for like-minded communities. The city’s population of 81,322 is up 7.4 percent from 2010. This is sizable growth considering that its population actually fell by 2.26 percent during the prior decade, according to the previous census. In some ways, Somerville’s growth has come in spite of a lack of public transit access, including rail connections. Of the 15 existing bus service routes in Somerville, 14 did not meet the MBTA’s Schedule Adherence Standard on weekdays in 2009. The delays were consistently due to high area congestion levels, which left the most densely populated city in Massachusetts with an unacceptable level of public transit service.

Despite these transportation obstacles, the city has quickly transformed into a hot spot for people of all ages, but particularly the millennial generation. Millennials (ages 25-35) currently make up the highest percentage of the population within Somerville, and the second highest percentage of residents are ages 35-54.

There have been longstanding negotiations between Somerville and the state to expand rapid transit service in the city and improve connections to Boston. The first rail stop in Somerville, Sullivan Square, was part of the Haymarket North extension and opened in 1975—the second, Davis Square, was part of a Red Line extension and opened in 1984. It would be 30 years until construction of another Somerville station, Assembly, which opened in 2014. A key part of Somerville’s growth and development vision, construction of the station was made possible by private funding from Assembly Row investors in cooperation with the MBTA. Still, this does not solve the issue for the majority of Somerville residents who don’t live near the existing stations.

Additional service to Somerville is, however, currently in the works. The Green Line Extension (GLX), now set to be completed in 2021, would add seven new stops as part of extending service to Medford. Of the seven new stops, five would be located through the center corridor of Somerville (including a Union Square spoke), the most underserved section of the city for transit. After years of delay due to planning issues and ballooning cost estimates, the state came out with an additional condition for construction of the GLX in an attempt to rein in costs: Somerville and Cambridge together would be required to pay a combined $75 million for the project to proceed. An unprecedented initiative, this marked the first time local governments would be required to help fund a state transportation project. Even with this additional requirement, the cities decided to comply since they felt the project was crucial.

Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone released goals for the city in a 20-year plan for 2010-2030 entitled ‘SomerVision’. City officials stress their agenda of smart, environmentally friendly, transit-oriented growth in building Somerville’s future on the city’s website and in press releases. The new developments are widely welcomed among residents, community organizations and local government. That community support has spurred optimism about achieving the goals outlined in ‘SomerVision’. Still, much of the plan is heavily dependent on the GLX, and any delay in the project would likely affect the “SomerVision” timeline

Like Somerville, Malden is close to Boston and connected by rapid transit, with two stops on the Orange Line (Malden Center and Oak Grove, both built in 1975) as well as 13 bus routes that service the city. Despite the larger scale similarities between Malden and Somerville, Malden is taking a different approach to growth solutions then Somerville.

Malden had population of about 60,000 people in 2016—a 2.3 percent increase since 2010. A survey revealed that residents felt the city should discontinue its developer-friendly Residential Incentive Overlay district in favor of smaller and less intrusive mixed-use developments. This zoning change would reduce the likelihood of developers coming in and constructing buildings with greater unit capacity, even around key transit stations such as Malden Center.

Most residents also responded in favor of limiting population growth beyond 65,000-70,000 people*. City government has decided to follow through with residents’ wishes for more green space and less development—particularly residential developments—citing reasons such as traffic and a potential lack of involvement by new residents in civic matters. The revitalization of Malden Center, along with the addition of more usable green space in the form of neighborhood squares has taken center stage in the Malden development agenda. To further their goal of easing traffic, city officials met with a group of Northeastern University civil engineering students in 2016. The students’ capstone project was a transportation study to improve Malden’s accessibility to pedestrians, cyclists, public transportation and vehicular traffic. The presentation was well received as a way to improve the flow of all kinds of traffic, making the city easier to navigate for both residents and visitors.

Malden city councilors may be somewhat divided on the pressure to increase housing stock for growing populations. Some current members of the council and candidates have spoken to the importance of smart planning and strong transportation, but others have stressed the need to protect current residents from what they consider overdevelopment. There are genuine concerns raised by both proponents of smart growth and those promoting the current pattern of growth within the community. Prior to some of the calls for re-zoning to prevent larger residential units, Malden was awarded an $850,000 MassWorks grant to redevelop Malden Center that state Representative Steve Ultrino (D-Malden) said would “enhance our housing, public safety, and economic development goals.” The grant was contingent on a Community Compact Agreement with the Commonwealth, a way state government is working to strengthen relationships between municipalities and the state. It also commits Malden to research how to further best practices, such as the viability of a housing plan that is community-supported and accounts for changing demographics.

Demographic Comparison of Malden and Somerville



Population 2016



Population 2010



Population 2000



Population Increase 2000-2010



Population Increase 2010-2016



Population by Age, 2016

under 5









(millennial)  25-34












Median Home Value 2016



Median Home Value 2010



Median Home Value Increase 2010-2016



Car Ownership

1 vehicle to 1.38 persons

1 vehicle to 1.6 persons

Bus Routes



Rapid Transit Stops



Land Size

5.04 sq. miles

4.12 sq. miles

Source: NeighborhoodScout** ; City of Malden & City of Somerville*** ; Malden car ownership = own calculations.

What Can Be Learned?
The purposeful redevelopment agenda that Somerville is pursuing has shaped the city’s present and future. Its predominantly young professional population has certainly given direction to and supported the current narrative in place. While not every municipality should try to become another Somerville, there are lessons to be learned from the operating procedure of any town or city being confronted with the challenges that accompany a quickly rising population.

The diversity of Malden’s population is growing, which opens new doors for the city in terms of different plans to incorporate that growth and the inevitable future expansion into their city’s values. Massachusetts cities and towns are different, with various community and civic values that lead them to take varying approaches to similar problems. This is a quality that should be celebrated. It is possible for growth to be sustained and fostered by any community with planning that allows them to support the growth that reinforces their values and core principles. In times of such change it is fortunate that these values are not tied to anything perishable, such as a structure or a line in the zoning laws. Rather, they exist within the community itself.



*No timeframe specified

**This is an opensource database with information from several federal agencies designed to provide seamless demographic information. 

***Car ownership Information, land size, and transit stop information provided by the City Of Somerville & the City of Malden